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Wednesday, 20 December 2017   /   published in Rhinos

From Rescue to Research: Training Detection Dogs for Conservation

Published in MONGABAY by Sue Palminteri on 1 December 2017
  • Conservation and research teams have used detection dogs to locate illegal wildlife products, weapons, invasive species, and, particularly, wildlife scat–a non-invasive way to collect dietary, hormonal, and genetic information contained in fecal material.
  • Training detection dogs builds on their obsessive drive to play by associating a target substance with the play reward.
  • Handlers are instrumental in interpreting a dog’s behavior and ensuring it searches efficiently and effectively for its targets.
  • Detection dogs are a cost-effective way to collect wildlife data, though the costs of international transport may limit their use by smaller conservation groups.

People have long used dogs’ amazing sense of smell to search for drugs and explosives, lost people, rare species, and even human diseases. Research and conservation teams use dogs to find poachers, illegal wildlife products, and wildlife dung—or scat, often for multiple species, a non-invasive way to collect dietary, hormonal, and genetic information contained in the fecal material.

 Three groups—Working Dogs for Conservation (WD4C), Conservation Canines, and PackLeader—have trained many of the dogs used by projects around the world to detect wildlife and related substances, including scat, carcasses, and processed products, such as rhino horn or ivory. All started in the mid- to late-1990s adapting training from police and narcotics-detection dogs.

Detection dog Lily searching a broad landscape. Photo credit: Pete Coppolillo.

Dogs are built to smell. They have nearly 50 times more scent receptors in their noses than we have, plus a 40-times larger portion of their brain dedicated to smelling. It’s no wonder scientists believe dogs’ sense of smell is more than 10,000 times as acute as ours.  They can, for example, detect a human smell from far away and can distinguish one person from another by smell alone.

Dogs can smell continuously (not just when they inhale, as we do), and they can tell which nostril receives an odor first and thus the general direction of where the scent is coming from, a huge plus in searching in unknown environments. Searching by scent allows conservation detection dogs to detect plants, animals, and scat that people can’t, especially those hidden by terrain, vegetation, or water.

Scent detection dogs are typically focused, high-energy animals obsessed with a favorite toy, a combination that can frustrate owners but keeps the working dogs eager.

Conservation Canines works with shelters to find energetic ball-fanatical dogs, typically those that detect airborne scents, rather than those that follow a track with their nose close to the ground.

Many dogs are able to detect target objects, yet WD4C screens up to 1,000 dogs for each one they accept. It’s that obsessive toy drive that motivates certain dogs to work so hard to find target scents that makes them successful

Trainers also look for dogs with ’nerve strength’—the capacity to work efficiently in unfamiliar environments and conditions “We move dogs around in trucks and boats and ATVs and airplanes and even once on elephant back, so they need to stay cool during all that.”

Pepin gets a sunset play reward for sniffing out cheetah scat in Zambia. Photo credit: Dave Hamman

Training, which for WD4C can take three to four months, matches the finding of a target scent with a reward—the chance to play with a ball or other toy—that the dogs crave. Each time a dog locates a new sample, it gets a chance to play with its ball or other toy.

WD4C first pairs the dog’s toy reward with a target scent–for example, hiding their favorite ball with bushmeat. Gradually, the trainers separate the scent from the toy, so that when a trained dog finds the target scent, it knows to sit and look at its handler, who delivers the toy.

Veteran dogs learn new scents pretty quickly because they know that it’s the same game, but with a different target scent.”

The best parts of the day for these dogs are when they get to play. It’s what they live for. Photo credit: Pete Coppolillo

Once trained, a dog can learn new targets, include the scats of more than 10 different species.

Dogs are trained to stick with the smell of the target substance without getting distracted by other animals or their scat. A professional detection dog should not show interest in the actual animals associated with the target scat—they are meant to be non-invasive and ignore wildlife while in the field.

However, dogs trained to detect scat of several species will look for all of these at the same time, so another management issue is the training of dogs on the scat of sympatric species (those living in the same area), some of which are more common than others.

Conservation groups have most commonly used detection dogs to detect and monitor rare species, above and below ground, and underwater, including whales and invasive fish.

Detection dogs are helping Kyrgyzstan customs officials to inspect cars for illegally traded snow leopard, argali sheep, and ibex. Skins, bones, organs and other parts of these three species are smuggled across Central Asian borders. Photo credit: T.Rosen/Panthera

Trainers can teach dogs to sniff out particular substances of interest to a partner, and these have changed over time. “Five years ago, most of our work was on carnivore scats,” now it’s on all the trafficked wildlife targets like ivory and rhino horn, and guns and ammunition.

All the training centers match each dog with a particular human, the handler, for a specific project.

Training the handler improves the dog’s efficiency and effectiveness in locating targets. Handlers must learn to correctly identify scat and avoid showing interest in scat of other species, which could encourage a dog to look for incorrect scat in order to please the handler and get a reward.

Detection dog and its handler learning to work together at Grumeti Reserve in Tanzania. Photo credit: Pete Coppolillo

During training, the handler learns to read and interpret the dog’s movements and any changes in behavior. Training novice handlers can take several weeks of hands-on work to learn how to select, take care of, understand, and motivate a detection dog.

Key considerations, she explained, “include the fairly large start-up costs, as well as upkeep: dogs require housing, maintenance, specialized care (in our case, an hour of de-ticking each afternoon), training, and people that specialize in working them in the field.

Handlers learn to merge a target scent with a chance to play with a favorite toy that the dog just cannot do without. Photo credit: Pete Coppolillo